Does the Single-Season Touchdown Record Really Matter That Much Anymore?

Ty SchalterNFL National Lead WriterDecember 23, 2013

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They say records are made to be broken, but that isn't true.

Records are made to be admired. They're for chatting about around the water cooler or whispering in hushed tones. They're for printing in ink and casting in bronze. They're for commemorative plaques and memorabilia. They're for "on pace to" in the middle of the season and "fell short of" at the end of the year.

This December 22, though, Peyton Manning broke the NFL's single-season passing touchdown record with a tremendous four-touchdown, 400-yard performance. With a game against the Oakland Raiders28th-ranked scoring defense left to play, per Pro Football Reference, Manning could easily push that number up even higher.

Manning not only beat his old personal best of 49 touchdowns from 2004, he topped his old rival Tom Brady's record: 50, from the New England Patriots' unprecedented 16-0 2007 regular season.

Somehow, it feels a little hollow.

Fifty should have become a hallowed number, a legendary mark like Babe Ruth's 60 home runs. Even if Brady wan't going to be the Touchdown King for 34 years, he deserved to reign for a little longer. Dan Marino ruled wisely over all passers for 20 years; his old mark of 48 stood from his 1984 sophomore season until Manning's 2004 campaign.

What's going on with this record? Once Manning sets the new high-water mark in Week 17, will it stand for even one whole season before it falls again?


The Natural Order of Things

Let's stop to think how records work. Once a sport or league begins keeping records, the "all-time" records should fall quickly at first, then stand for longer periods. Every time the bar goes higher, it should take that much more of a spectacular season to surpass it—and therefore, the records should be broken more rarely.

Using Pro Football Reference's Player-Season Finder (for this, and except where noted all other stats used for this piece), I calculated how long each NFL single-season passing touchdown record stood since 1942 (from the rise of the conventional "T-formation" quarterback):

Ty Schalter/Bleacher Report

Cecil Isbell's record of 24 touchdowns lasted for just one year before the crown went to Sid Luckman in 1943. Frankie Albert and Johnny Unitas each got some time with it before George Blanda set the first record to stand for longer than 11 years: 36 touchdowns, which was tops from 1961 until 1984, when Marino dropped that 48-score bomb on the league.

Marino's performance seemed like an incredible outlier at the time; for years, many considered the record all but unbreakable. Now, it's been broken three times in fewer than 10 seasons.

What's going on?

If we chart the NFL passing yardage record the same way, we get a clue:

Ty Schalter/Bleacher Report

See the 4,007-yard record that stood for 12 seasons? Well, Joe Namath's record stood from 1967 until 1979, the year after the NFL simultaneously expanded the regular season from 14 to 16 games, and instituted several rule changes to open up the passing game. 

SAN DIEGO, CA:  Quarterback Dan Fouts #14 of the San Diego Chargers passes the ball during a game against the Denver Broncos at Jack Murphy Stadium during the 1987 NFL season in San Diego, California.  The Broncos defeated the Chargers 31-14.   (Photo by
Ken Levine/Getty Images

Dan Fouts broke Namath's record, then his own record—twice—in three consecutive seasons. Between 1978 and 1983, seven quarterbacks surpassed Namath's 4,007-yard mark; besides Fouts, most of them were not titans of the game (Lynn Dickey, Billy Sipe, Neil Lomax and Bill Kenney all "broke" Namath's record as well).

A similar effect is happening today with Marino's 1984 records. His passing yardage total that season, 5,084, stood nearly unchallenged for 27 years. Drew Brees broke it in 2011; just two years later (counting Manning's 5,211-yard 2013 season), Marino sits in fifth place. Brees, who is averaging 318.7 yards per game this season, needs just 304 yards to push Marino's 1984 season down to sixth all time.

What's going on? The NFL didn't add any games to the schedule in 2011, nor did it tweak the rules to allow more passing. Still, something fundamental about football is changing.

Much like George Halas' re-introduction of the "T-formation" in the early 1940s reshaped the game as we know it, the rise to dominance of the shotgun and three-plus receiver sets is resetting the record book.


The New Shape of Football

If the change in shotgun use doesn't seem that dramatic to you, just look at the change from 2003 to 2012, per the Football Outsiders DVOA Database (subscription required):

Ty Schalter/Bleacher Report

In 2003, eight teams used the 'gun less than five percent of the time, and only Manning's Colts used it on more than 30 percent of snaps. In 2012, the Houston Texans used shotgun the least—and they used it 21.6 percent of the time. Most other teams were at or above 40, and the Detroit Lions ran out of the 'gun on 71.3 percent of their snaps.

Moreover, the run/pass balance is dramatically different these days. Pro Football Reference shows that NFL teams are averaging 35.4 passes per game in 2013, an all-time high, while averaging 27.1 carries per game, an all-time low.

Teams are throwing more often than they ever have, more effectively than they ever have. It's a trend that's been going on for years—and accelerating.

HOUSTON, TX - DECEMBER 22:  Peyton Manning #18 of the Denver Broncos celebrates with Joel Dreessen #81 and Orlando Franklin #74 after Manning set the NFL record for touchdown passes in a season with 51, in a 37-13 defeat of the Houston Texans at Reliant S
Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Maybe Manning will torch the Raiders for 400 yards and five touchdowns and enjoy a Marino-like two-decade tenure at the top of both lists. Maybe he'll see his numbers shredded by the likes of Aaron Rodgers, Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson and Cam Newton over the next decade as the NFL pushes the limit of how much passing offense can fit into 16 games of 60 minutes each.

Maybe the NFL will go to an 18-game season, and Manning will be lucky to be anywhere near the top of the list in 20 years.

No matter what happens in the future, Manning making himself the sole member of the 5,000-yard-and-50-touchdown club ensures this season will stand with Marino's as one of the very best in NFL history.